Monday, March 15, 1993

Iditarod VIII

And all this suffering and sleeplessness and staring at little doggie hinders for 1100 miles, what does it get you? A ride down Front Street and a ticket to Nome's annual bacchanalia. The old Gold Rush town, where the black beach sands once shimmered with gold and the biggest town north of Seattle momentarily prospered, pulls out all the stops, awakes from its winter hibernation and proceeds to behave very badly.

That would be Nome's mayor over in the Nugget Inn, refereeing the wet t-shirt contest. And that would your pilot, the man in whose steady hands your life is held every day aboard that tiny two-seater plane, lying face down in a pool of something nasty. And that would be the esteemed members of a Famous National Sports Program, building a pyramid of beer bottles to make the pharaohs weep.

And this little party all spills out into the street to greet the winner. The firehouse siren bellows and so does the mob, and I'm half surprised dogs and musher alike don't turn tail and run the other way, but there's something about a $50,000 check and new red pickup that keeps things moving. That and the promise of a hot shower, a clean bed and food that doesn't come out of a ziplock bag. And after the cheering, the picture taking, the check passing and the hugs from delirious well-wishing strangers, everyone adjourns to the bar to rehydrate and wait for second place. And third. And as long as it takes. It's not like there's much ELSE to do in Nome this time of year.

And that snowmobile ride? Well like I said, it SEEMED like a good idea. But looking down from no small height, I started to wander if some of the stuff my sixth grade teacher said about me wasn't right after all. I hit that hard blue ice and rolled like a rag doll thrown from a moving car. But it wasn't so bad. Not really. I had a big time reporter from Detroit off on his first trip to the Great White North, riding on the seat behind me.

Those big city guys always have plenty of padding.

Sunday, March 14, 1993

Iditarod VII

For most of us in Unalakleet, whiteout is a modest word for "Should you venture very far from the cabin lights, you will be instantly lost and ravens will feast upon your frozen carcass, so go back inside and bum another beer from the ABC guys." For mushers, it's a time to make a fast break, lose the competition and hopefully not get too terribly lost. Stories abound of racers staggering ahead of their dog teams in zero visibility, desperately shining headlights into the murk, scanning for a trail marker or the slightest hint of trail.

It can be a deadly serious game. If all else fails, they stop where they are and wait it out. Dogs tuck in their tails and let the snow drift over them, creating cozy igloos in the most wretched conditions. Lacking tails and fur, mushers are more inclined to curl up into sleeping bags and then jam themselves into sled bags. It's not roomy, but it's home.

Saturday, March 13, 1993

Iditarod VI

It didn't hurt matters, from a publicity standpoint at least, that the women kept kicking butt. In 1985, Libby Riddles went out into a screaming blizzard to win or die trying. The Bering Sea ice was her home turf though, and her team found its way up the coast and rolled into Nome before eveyone last one of those big, tough Alaska guys. Then Susan Butcher cleaned everyone's clock, racking up four wins in five years. Recently, it's hard-working, soft-spoken types like Martin Buser and Jeff King covering the distance in ever shorter times, nine days and change in the last few years. That works out to about 120 miles a day. Hard-core Alaskans follow mushers' standings and gossip about the very personal grudges that develop much in the way that the lower 48 follows NFL playoff stats and felony convictions.

On the trail beyond the gold fields, the character of the land begins to change. After following the Yukon River's broad winding avenue for a couple hundred miles, wading through the periodic hip deep slush found in patches of overflow, the coastal hills give way to exposed coastline. The mushers reach the Bering Sea coast at the continent's western edge in Unalakleet. The name means "Place where the west wind always blows," and even if an icy gale wasn't whistling through the power lines night and day, snow drifts to the top of the church steeple would make me a believer.

From here it's a simple matter of racing nearly three hundred miles north and west along exposed rocky coastline and ocean ice through some of the most godawful blizzards on the planet, blowing in unimpeded direct from Siberia.

Friday, March 12, 1993

Iditarod V

Dogs were the only way to go in those early days. But the 1920's brought skiplanes to the land, and forty years later snowmobiles nearly put an end to traditional dog sledding. You don't have to feed a snowmobile in the summer, it doesn't get into fights with all the other snowmobiles and it's a whole lot faster in winter.

The gold played out, too, and most of the gold rush towns shrank to a shadow, or disappeared outright. Iditarod itself remains only in name, though it once was home to 20,000 miners and camp followers. It's now a tumble-down ghost town, slowly falling into the creek. The old bordello's roof has come down, it's flowered wallpaper is curled and lying in heaps. An old wrought iron bed lies rusted and in pieces, while one ancient Underwood typewriter slowly returns to its component elements in the mercantile store.

The '70's brought a new generation of wanderers to Alaska, though. Some cherished the old ways of bush travel and frontier life, and set about raising sled dogs again and running them for fun and competition. The races grew longer and in 1973, Joe Redington, Sr. and Dorothy Page helped organize the first Iditarod Trail race from Anchorage to Nome. It was more a long winter camping trip than a race, but a good time was had, no one got killed and they've been at it ever since. National sponsorship money came, as did national television coverage and some big money. It wasn't about camping anymore, it turned into a real race.

Thursday, March 11, 1993

Iditarod Trail, Alaska IV

From the air, the trail seems like a winding highway through the wilderness. From the ground, it's charms are frequently less apparent. From the air, it spans half a continent, cresting mountains, crossing rivers, dancing across ocean ice and through endless spruce forest. On the ground, it merely grinds along, mile after relentless, exhausting mile. It's no highway, but an winding, rutted and altogether merciless trail, plagued with bottomless soft snow in places, glare ice and even bare gravel in others. It is, in the truest sense of the words, rough sledding.

The trail has been carved out over nearly a century of use. First gold miners struck out across the wilderness, leaving the port town of Seward along Resurrection Bay's ice-free waters and clawing their way to the interior. They followed frozen rivers where they could, the Yentna, Susitna, Kuskokwim and Yukon. When that failed, they followed Native trails or simply hacked a way through endless black spruce forest, crossed the Alaska Range's glacial peaks at Rainy Pass, and struck out for the gold towns of Ruby, Ophir, Iditarod.

Wednesday, March 10, 1993

Iditarod Trail, Alaska III

The first miles of the Iditarod route, its status as a National Historical Trail notwithstanding, have a distinctly urban flavor. First there's the gauntlet of bars catering to the monosyllabic set, then past the parking garage and the boarded up strip joints you hang a right at that big vacant lot and fly down Cordova hill. Hard left at the skating rink, past the Cal Worthington's used car lot and you're off into the woods. Do watch for traffic while crossing all six lanes of Tudor Avenue, though.

Thirteen miles later, it's Eagle River, Anchorage's excuse for a suburb. That's it for day one. Everyone packs up their dogs, sleds and the piles of survival gear, puppy chow and fish head snack-ems and drives 50 miles up the road to Wasilla, where the race begins in earnest Sunday morning. From this point on, with a brief stop at Knik Roadhouse, the race doesn't cross pavement until Front Street in Nome.

Tuesday, March 9, 1993

Iditarod Trail, Alaska II

It all starts in Anchorage, on a seasonably miserable Friday night early in March with the snowplows hard at it. Having spent the previous five months removing the winter's snowfall from city streets, they were now busily putting it all back. Not long before dawn, their work was finished at last, and at an hour normally reserved for bored cops and only the most determined drunks, Fourth Avenue was hopping. Literally.

The city's main drag is alive with a cacophony of sound, color and motion, not to mention smell. There are, after all, upwards of 1,300 dogs in nearly 70 teams, all having arrived in the pre-dawn gloom and cold, preparing for the fabled Iditarod's start. In the cobalt half-light, each dog's bark takes physical form as think icy clouds, creating a noisy, low-level fog. And watch your step, okay. These animals are finely tuned, physically primed racing machines. House training is for those goofy little wiener dogs.

Alaska's famous, infamous and merely strange come out of the woodwork at race time. Some look like it's the first time they've seen anything but four cabin walls since Labor Day. And if that's not a dead animal on your head, you're just not there, my friend. We all line The Ave., standing knee deep in snow berms, clutching precious hot coffee and hollering like fools every two minutes as another team heads off. Then it's back to the hard work of trying to get feeling back into our toes.

Monday, March 8, 1993

Iditarod Trail, Alaska I

The snowmobile seemed like a good idea. I'd never actually spent much time on one before, but I'd seen it done lots of times. And not just on TV either. I mean you just sit there and go, right? We're not talking recombinant DNA technology here.

It was miles from Unalakleet and about four feet above the frozen river, as I tumbled ass over teakettle with the hard blue ice approaching fast, that I started to have second thoughts...

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I was off to photograph the Iditarod. Dog race. Alaska. Eleven hundred miles of butt-cold wilderness. High point of both the Anchorage and Nome social calendars. Which seems to mean drinking until you fall down. Get up and repeat as necessary.